Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy
The Dignity Of Difference
Updated: Jan 18, 2021
Having settled with my family in Jerusalem less than two months ago, I am overwhelmed by the sheer colour and variety of our new surroundings. Every day I fall in love with the breathtaking diversity of Jews and Jewishness across the city of gold, as each community adds another jewel to the beautiful collage of our nation’s capital. This diversity is a central element of our Jewishness and so my wife Renana and I specifically chose to settle in a mixed religious-secular neighbourhood, ensuring that our children are exposed to broader perspectives.
This Jewish diversity is also one of the great strengths of the Australian Jewish community. I take great pride in the fact that our community is strong and generous enough to support a wide array of excellent Jewish schools, youth movements and initiatives, each with their own religious standards and educational priorities. Tolerance and diversity are central Jewish values, and inter-denominational cooperation constitutes the backbone of a functional and harmonious community. This is why, when working at Moriah College, we always looked to be inclusive of all the Jewish schools in Australia and even those children that did not go to Jewish schools but affiliate as Jews. From the Mikolot: Voices of the Future international public speaking competition to hosting dignitaries such as the Prime Ministers of Israel and Australia, we have always been proud to host multiple uniforms for these types of events in the Moriah College auditorium.
However, such harmony can only exist on the back of certain principles. One of the most important of these is self-definition. Indeed, tolerance worthy of the name only exists if we allow every community the autonomy, in the comfort of their four walls, to define the boundaries of their practice and pursue their own religious ends as they see fit. The imposition of external, foreign standards of practice and doctrine onto the internal traditions of an orthodox community can create intolerance and become antithetical to true harmony.
I have always tried to pursue communal coherence and affirm the right of every Jewish denomination to create their own standards, to practice Judaism as they understand it, and to educate their children within the ideas and limits of their unique traditions. A highlight of this for me was when I shared the vision of the Shabbat Project in the Moriah College Drama Theatre and we had rabbinic leaders across the spectrum all nodding to the same idea – something that didn’t happen in many other communities around the world and we were recognised for. We shared the vision and each group decided how to apply it. While disagreeing with the conclusions of some, I accept other movements on their own terms, and refrain from imposing my own attitudes upon their religious standards. I am writing this from the Hillel International General Assembly in Denver after having learned with a range of people and am proud to lead Mosaic United which serves all types of Jews.
I believe that this non-judgmental value of tolerance should be consistent. Reform Jews should feel free to celebrate their unique traditions and practices and Orthodox Jews should be free to stay true to their Torah values and Halachic compass. We should be comfortable to set our own boundaries, to circumscribe our practices and customs, and to educate our children in our unique, ancient traditions.
This right of self-determination must include its most basic facet: the right to decide who is considered a Jew. Orthodox Judaism is, well, Orthodox. It takes great pride in adhering to the traditions of Halacha, an ancient and multifaceted system of laws, customs and rituals that have withstood the tests of time. While maintaining room for innovation and creativity in application, Halacha provides a religious framework that includes certain boundaries that are not negotiable. In this vein, Orthodoxy defines a Jew in one of two ways; one must either be born to a Jewish mother, or undergo an Orthodox conversion (of which there are many types). This definition has served Judaism for well over two millennia, providing a balance of inclusivity and preservation. We are proud that the Orthodox definition of Jewishness allows for any sincere individual (regardless of ethnic, cultural or socioeconomic background) to convert to Judaism, while simultaneously preserving a clear and unambiguous definition of legal Jewishness. If they are willing to learn and go through the process, anyone should be invited with open arms. I do believe that many of the Orthodox institutions could and should be working harder to make those that are sincere feel even more welcome. Those people that have not had positive encounters should approach one of the many other authentically Orthodox institution that does provide this approach and those that are responsible for negative encounters need to seriously take stock and introspect.
Although Orthodoxy has a clear position on this issue, the stance must not be confused with a wholesale rejection of other people. Heaven Forbid. Jews all share a common fate regardless of affiliation. Our enemies do not distinguish between us; we are all painfully aware that the murderer who massacred Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue six weeks ago and the terrorist who shot at a pregnant woman in Ofra last week preached death to all Jews. Moments of national grief, jubilation, triumph and pain are shared by all.
Orthodox Jews must strive to respect, cherish and accommodate other streams of Judaism on their own terms. In response, they deserve to be given the freedom to build and maintain schools in consonance with their beloved traditions and venerable customs. Therefore, an Orthodox school like Moriah College in a democratic society like Sydney Australia, must be free to be genuinely and unapologetically Orthodox. It must abide by the standards set by the intricate system of Halacha, thereby providing a meaningful choice, among other wonderful schools, for Jewish parents and students across the religious spectrum. It would be sad indeed if the Orthodox voice within the great Australian Jewish conversation was to be silenced or shouted down and at the same time, it would be a great shame if the Orthodox ear does not hear the clear cries.
I wish to end with a personal appeal to a community that has nurtured me and received each of my own children with open arms as they started their journey into Jewish life. I want to reach out to the entire community and ask that Orthodox Jews will always support the freedom and vibrancy of religious expression, no matter what the affiliation. In return, I would ask other strands and voices to to recognise that adherence to tradition is one of the great strengths of Orthodox Judaism. Moreover, Orthodox institutions benefit Jews of every colour and creed, and it is in everyone’s interest to allow Orthodox Judaism to flourish in our country. The dialogue needs to happen, but in a constructive way employing the dignity of difference. I am confident that the beautiful tapestry of our sunburnt country is colourful and broad enough to continue to include the Orthodox thread.
May we all stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of common challenges and opportunities, and work together to build a broad, tolerant and vibrant community for our children and grandchildren – shabbat shalom!